“I’m being punished for my sins.” Have you heard someone say that? Perhaps, in a moment of pain, guilt, or embarrassment, you said it yourself. Partly in jest, of course – but not really. God brings the rod; we are uneasy with the possibility that God really is, after all, omniscient, like a cosmic Train Conductor coming down the rows of seats, knowing that we lack a ticket for our station. But is that the complete picture of this sin-and-punishment business? Is it a cycle in my life and yours, or does it end?
When I say “I’m being punished for my sins,” I may be caught in two fallacies, one logical and one theological. The logical fallacy is called post hoc, ergo propter hoc: I am suffering now, I sinned earlier, therefore my earlier act (sinning) caused my later condition (suffering). The theological fallacy arises when I forget that what occurred on the Cross was a substitutionary atonement for sins (including mine). All of the “punishment” due me – and believe me, a boatload is due – has already been visited on Jesus. In a fallen world, we will continue to sin against both God and our fellows, but one is “simul justus et peccator,” as Martin Luther said. The believer is “both justified and a sinner.”
The author of Lamentations also shows us a fallen world. Israel falls away from God and receives horrific punishment: “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.” (Lamentations 4:10). Cannibalism aptly describes us: we eat the young of our ambitions, hopes, greed, fear and vainglory; should any of them grow to adulthood, they consume us.
If the Word on the Cross is absent from our lives, it matters little how many priests and prophets (or Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, Bible-study groups or mission programs) are available. Indeed, God’s wrath was visited upon Israel, in part, because of “the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed in the midst of her [Israel] the blood of the righteous.” (Lamentations 4:13).
The blood that matters in this context is the atoning blood of Jesus, yet we misunderstand it, as poet Howard Nemerov (1920 – 1991) points out:
The fat time of the year is also time
Of the Atonement; birds to the berry bushes,
Men to the harvest; a time to answer for
Both present plenty and emptiness to come.
When the slain legal deer is salted down,
When apples smell like goodness, cold in the cellar,
You hear the ram’s horn sounded in the high
Mount of the Lord, and you lift up your eyes
As though by this observance you might hide
The dry husk of an eaten heart which brings
Nothing to offer up, no sacrifice
Acceptable but the canceled-out desires
And satisfactions of another year’s
Abscess, whose zero in His winter’s mercy
Still hides the undecipherable seed.
(From “Runes” (1959)). I may “hear the ram’s horn” but, like Israel, how often do I turn away, or seek my own path, or go it alone? When I do, I have “no sacrifice acceptable” for my sins.
Like Israel, we seek our own path and go it alone, sometimes ironically, sometimes pathetically. As singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keene asks, “Is There Wireless In Heaven?”:
Is there wireless in heaven? I just wanna know.
Do I need a password to log in when I go?
And does Jesus have a website to send in my e-mail?
Is there wireless in heaven, or do I go to hell?
I’m cosmically connected, spiritually aware.
They say I’m apathetic, but I don’t really care.
Pathetically reflective, feeling over-matched,
I wanna meet my maker with no wires attached.
(From The Rose Hotel (2009)).
In all likelihood, Israel’s priests, prophets and people thought they too were “cosmically connected and spiritually aware,” and they were destroyed. Yet even under such circumstances, and under the circumstances of our own lives, God’s promise remains true: “The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished; he will keep you in exile no longer.” (Lamentations 4:22).
Punished for my sins? Hardly: I could not survive what I deserve. Jesus on the Cross was punished for my sins. I’m in exile no longer.